Individuals and inertia

There are broadly two competing narratives about Pakistan?s past, present and future: the pro-democracy narrative and the anti-corruption narrative.

The problem is not so much that one is more compelling than the other. The problem is that both are inadequate. The crisis of governance facing Pakistan is much deeper than either of the two competing narratives about Pakistan account for.

Despite the merits of their inherent arguments, both the so-called pro-democracy camp and the so-called anti-corruption camp seem to be built on the notion that individuals are the answer to the country?s very deep-rooted and complex problems. This over-investment in the individual helps explain the constant failure of both approaches.

The Nawaz Sharif democrats, for example, are right to privilege civilian supremacy, but they are wrong when they route all virtue in the institutional dynamic of Pakistan through the person of Nawaz Sharif. Admirable as his resolve may be, and important as his contributions to Pakistan?s democracy and the country?s physical infrastructure have been, his obduracy and myopia have cost the country a great leader and a better present and future.

The Imran Khan purists are right to insist on transparent and clean governance, but wrong to believe that the path to such a republic is routed through solely the person of Imran Khan. Admirable as his self-belief, his compassion for the less privileged, and his peerless ability to command an audience in the international arena may be, his limitations and lack of preparation are costing the country a great leader, and a better future.

Individuals can be inspirational, and this inspiration is vital to the process of establishing legitimacy, authority, and effectiveness in governance. But individuals cannot be counted on to tackle multi-layered structural problems that are rooted in incentives, from the local, to the global, and from the national to the regional levels. The unfounded and false belief in individual saviours engenders some profoundly problematic issues that become buried in a battle of narratives that seeks to serve leaders? egos rather than tackle problems.

The result is that we keep accumulating problems. Worse, we keep both wrongly attributing the cause of these problems, as well as wrongly investing in hope that the solution to these problems is the person (and the associated narrative about Pakistan). Let?s consider the example of the 2017 census to illustrate just how badly we misdiagnose our problems and misdirect our proposed solutions to them.

Pakistan is supposed to conduct a census every ten years, in the first year of the decade. So we had a census in 1951, and then 1961. The frequency of the national census was first delayed in 1971 (and was conducted a year late in 1972). The 1981 census was on time. The next delay was in 1991, but this time the delay lasted seven years, with the census conducted in 1998. The 2001 census was then delayed again, this time, all the way to 2017. When the long overdue census was finally conducted in 2017, the preliminary results declared the country?s population to be 207.774 million.

The delimitations of constituencies for the 2018 election were calculated based on the 2017 census. But strangely, the final census has yet to be released. The reason for the delay is relatively simple to understand, but astounding nevertheless. Urban Sindh?s Mohajir or Urdu-speaking population, mostly represented in the political realm by the remnants of the MQM, is ?shrinking?, in both absolute and in relative terms. The Baloch population in Balochistan, represented by mainstream Baloch parties like Sardar Akhtar Mengal?s BNP, is also ?shrinking? (in relative terms). In both cases, an increase in the population of Pakhtuns, primarily driven by economic migration and internal displacement, but also by higher fertility rates, is driving these demographic trends.

The evidence for these changes, it is feared, is buried in the final details of the 2017 census. Once revealed and declared officially, the formulas that determine allocations, within the National Finance Commission, and especially in the provincial finance commissions in Sindh and Balochistan, will ?penalize? the communities that are shrinking and ?reward? the communities that have grown.

This is a classical problem in a diverse polity. There are three possible paths to take with regards to the census. The first is to adopt a disruptive, strict data-first, and data-last approach: release the census, no matter what happens. What will happen in such a case is simple. The MQM and BNP will abandon the coalition that they are part of in Islamabad, and one or both parties will take to the hills, and go from being mainstream to adopting harsher and more irreconcilable narratives about the place of ?their people? in the wider space that is Pakistan. Knowing this, no political entity, neither full-on democrat Nawaz Sharif, nor full-on honest Kaptaan Imran Khan, will make such a rash decision. Nor indeed will the security establishment (hawkish and impatient as it may seem to be), be comfortable with such rashness.

The second solution is to hold firm to the status quo and continue to delay the final census data and basically govern blindly (because that is what making decisions about resources in the absence of data is equivalent to). Pakistan has been doing this for two budget cycles now (the run up to fiscal year 2018-2019) and the run up to fiscal year 2019-2020. The piles of garbage in our cities, the return of dengue fever, the shortfalls at the HEC, and many similar challenges are not directly related to the census ? but they are all rooted in a wider absence of coherent and credible data about the total number of Pakistanis. The census is essential to this coherence.

The third solution is for the government to try to forge a political consensus for a new NFC award, and a number of changes to the population-first formula for allocations at both the NFC and PFCs. These changes would need to address the legitimate insecurities of Mohajirs and the Baloch, without penalizing urban Sindh and Balochistan?s Pakhtuns. All three groups are Pakistanis. All three deserve to be able to choose representatives freely. All three must be served by whomsoever is in power in Islamabad, regardless of whether smaller communities have a hand in their ascension to power or not.

We can blame the family-based, patronage-driven model of the PPP and the PML-N for this impasse. We can also blame the army for it. We can certainly blame Imran Khan?s obduracy or inexperience for it. We could also blame corruption. But none of these meta-explainers that we deploy for everything really explain the intricate balance that is being maintained by the impasse, and the need to devise a solution that adequately addresses all concerns. Neither the army, nor Imran Khan, nor Nawaz Sharif, even if any or all of them had unlimited powers, could solve the census finalization puzzle without engaging in a complex dialogue that ensured a give and take between various actors.

Complex dialogue with people we disagree with is hard work. It requires going beyond tweetable outrage and emotional rants in WhatsApp groups. Forging consensus that we are not fully comfortable with, but that moves the needle a bit further than it was is hard work. It requires the capacity to forgive, and the capacity to bite our tongues. None of this is possible for people that are obsessed with how their leader makes them feel, or those obsessed with being right or, worse still, winning at all costs.

The only path to progress in such circumstances is through collectivization of wisdom and will. Narratives of good and evil, represented by individual heroes and villains are fun in Avengers? movies. They should remain there. Real work needs to be done. No heroes required. No villains necessary.? .. Source

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